You Call It Corn…

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Back during my formative years, there was a commercial on TV all the time (I think for Mazola margarine) with the catch phrase, “You call it corn. We call it Maize.”

It was one of those commercials you couldn’t get away from and for some reason the slogan just seemed funny—not quite in the same league as “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” but along those lines. And my friend Sue, who is the master of the pithy phrase, used it as a sort of code to represent any large cultural difference. (The best example I can think of was when I was making approximately $20,000 a year and looking for a new job, and my father sent me a book called Rites of Passage at $100,000+ with advice on job-changing for corporate CEOs. He knew I didn’t make anywhere near $100,000, but he thought the book had good information, so he sent it. And it did have good information, and it was useful, but some of it was just funny because it was so not what I was dealing with. I was talking to Sue about it and she said, “You call it corn, we call it maize.” I said, “Exactly.”)

So I was reminded of this cultural chasm (involving corn, no less) when I noticed the multiple comments regarding the cornmeal mush discusison, with several commenters suggesting that cornmeal mush and grits are the same thing. And one person who was clearly offended by my sense of humor (for the record, the thing about people in Michigan was just a joke, I wasn’t trying to dis anyone in Michigan, I swear), accusing me of being stupid for living in the South and not knowing what grits are.

I do in fact know what grits are, and I also know what cornmeal is, and grits and cornmeal are not the same thing.

So herewith is my public service announcement concerning ground corn-based products.

Cornmeal is ground corn.

Grits is dried and ground hominy. (Hominy is soaked and dehulled corn.) Sometimes these are called “white grits” or “hominy grits.”

There is a ground corn product sold in the bulk aisle of my local Whole Foods called “yellow grits.” I spoke about this with a friendly Whole Foods staff person yesterday, and he told me that those yellow grits are a coarser version of cornmeal. This apparently is what many people think of when they talk about grits.

(And, after getting a comment stating that grits are polenta, I need to clarify here that polenta is made from ground cornmeal, and is not grits by a different name — though I think that polenta could safely be called cornmeal mush by a different name. Polenta is cornmeal, grits are not cornmeal, therefore grits are not polenta. Nor is funchi, which is also ground cornmeal, but gets a special mention for having its own song, which I will definitely be singing the next time I make cornmeal mush.)

In my experience living in the South, when people say “grits” they mean hominy grits. However different regions have different names, and different people may mean different things when they use the same words.

Here’s what Bill Neal had to say in Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, in the version I have, published in 1986 by the University of North Carolina Press.

“In cooking, corn had two forms: the first was raw or cooked green corn; the second was dried corn processed in one of two ways—either ground or soaked in an alkali solution. Ground corn is essentially cornmeal; the coarsest cracked corn was parched and eaten plain, especially on long hunting trips. My father carried this to school wrapped in a piece of paper as a recess-time snack in the 1930s. With some elaboration cornmeal became breads, fritters, and dumplings. Hominy comes from soaking and dehulling the dried corn. The Cherokees cooked hominy whole with pumpkin, beans, and walnuts. A hominy drink, Gv-No-He-Nv, was their symbol of hospitality. Dried and ground, hominy becomes grits.” [pp. 24-25]

“In the southern United States, grits refers to the ground product of hominy… To produce hominy, dried corn is first soaked in an alkali solution to facilitate removal of the hulls. The East Coast Indians leached wood ashes to obtain lye. The natives farther west and through Central America relied on lime from limestone. After soaking, hominy can be cooked as a whole grain. The Mexican soup ‘pozole’ is an authentic remnant of native hominy cooking. More often, in the southern United States, hominy is dried again and then ground for grits.’’ [p. 30]

I’m taking Bill Neal as the final word.

When I’m not eating for a dollar a day, I make grits with a little bit of butter and some sharp cheddar cheese and a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. (Not sure if that’s a traditional recipe, but I learned it from My Friend BG, known to her legions of admirers as MFBG, and she grew up in Wilson and her daddy was a tobacco farmer and that’s as Southern as you can get. So it’s authentic enough for me.)

MFBG heads to Greensboro to get her grits, from the Old Mill of Guilford. She says those are the best around. I believe her.

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13 Responses to “You Call It Corn…”

  1. Karen Says:

    I would call it polenta.

  2. supergrover Says:

    You could call it polenta, but that wouldn’t make it so – it would still be grits. If you put a bowl of polenta next to bowl of grits you would immediately SEE that they aren’t anywhere near the same, and that’s before you even taste – which is entirely different as well.

    In many groceries you can find canned hominy in the vegetable aisle. Pick up a can and taste it straight out of the can – it’s NOTHING like canned corn or cornbread or any of the cornmeal varients. Definitely its own flavor (and texture). You should be able to find it outside the Deep South. Even the Wal-Mart by me in the Hudson Valley, NY – decidedly Yankee territory – stocks it, although I think it’s in the ethnic section by the Goya beans and bags of masa de harina (also hominy, ground to a powder).

  3. lessisenough Says:

    supergrover is right. You are free to call it whatever you’d like, but in fact polenta is an Italian version of cooked cornmeal. Hominy grits are not cornmeal, nor are they polenta. They are grits, which is a dried and ground version of hominy, which is corn that has been soaked and dehulled. Totally different from straight corn/cornmeal products.

  4. Karen Says:

    Egads! You all take corn really seriously. I was kidding around, but apparently my dry sense of humor didn’t come across well. Being from the midwest, I just can’t get too worked up over ground corn, or any food for that matter. Carry on.

  5. Sara Says:

    I’m with Karen…I’m from the midwest, and I can’t get too worked up about food, either…mainly because the food is too heavy to get worked up about anything…(meat and taters)
    I just found this blog this week, and I think this whole thing is hilarious…you have a great way with words, and I’ve been laughing out loud at work all week, which is making my co-workers jealous.

  6. Sara Says:

    I’d like to clarify my last comment, actually….I think this idea is great… And I think you write hilariously… I wasn’t trying to say “what a stupid, funny idea..” because I’ve actually fed myself and my kids for $15-20 per week…lots of bologna and cereal…it’s nice to know that we could eat healthier if we get to that kind of economic distress again…

  7. supergrover Says:

    It’s grits that we take so seriously, not corn! Again – they’re different!!!

  8. fivecats Says:

    “Grits is dried and ground hominy.”

    shouldn’t that be “Grits ARE dried and ground hominy”?

    and i agree with you on taking bill neal as an authority on such matters. that man had a whole lotta southern cooking street cred.

  9. Kelly Says:

    I bought what looked like (and tasted exactly like) polenta in a German market and it was labeled Maisgrieβ grob (Kukuruz). According to my German dictionary, this translates to coarse maize semolina (the Kukuruz refers to the Austrian name for maize). And this, of course, leads to the question “what is semolina?” which I don’t think has been addressed thus far by this (our new favorite) blog. Wikipedia describes semolina as “the purified middlings of hard wheat used in making pasta; also, the coarse middlings used for breakfast cereals and puddings.” The most specific definition of middlings I could find was “any of various products or commodities of intermediate quality, grade, size, etc., as the coarser particles of ground wheat mingled with bran.” Wikipedia goes on to describe the two major types of semolina – durum semolina (one of the ingredients in couscous) and that from softer wheat; also known as farina and sold as Cream of Wheat (another Southern delicacy that my husband gives me all kinds of grief about). And all this proves that there is much to learn in life and probably much that gets lost in translation, because I’m not sure how much wheat was in the polenta that we ate. (FYI, the French label was Semoula de mais grossiere, which lead you to wonder whether semolina is a more general term than wikipedia (and other sources) lead us to believe).
    Anyway, thanks for helping us all make sense of the mysteries of life. We’re really enjoying the blog, your creativity and perseverance, and references to Aunt Blanche, MFBG and others. Are you going to post a video of you singing the funchi soung? I don’t know it. Good luck with the last few days!

  10. sarah Says:

    Thanks for the shout out to Greensboro’s mill. It’s a great field trip too.

    Grits is is correct. It’s an aggregate noun (like Congress, faculty, etc.) for any grammar freaks out there, which means the s at the end doesn’t make it a plural. However, grits are is pretty common usage and shouldn’t get you any dirty looks except from old lady English teachers.

    Don’t forget the southwestern posole. From my Santa Fe Cooking School Cookbook:

    Posole corn is prepared by soaking hard kernels of field corn (traditionally white, although blue is sometimes used now) in powdered lime and water – a method thought to mimic the ancient preservation of corn in limestone caves. After several hours, when the corn kernels have swollen, the liquid is allowed to evaporate and the kernels to dry.

    Posole is different from hominy, another kind of processed corn, which tends to be softer and more bland. Compared to hominy, posole’s flavor is intense and earthy, its consistency more robust. Since posole corn can be difficult to find, hominy is often used as a substitute in posole stew.

  11. lessisenough Says:

    This is definitely a Southern thing — or more specifically, a grits thing. It’s a poor, misunderstood product, often cooked wrong so people say they don’t like it. But when done right, they’re fabulous. (And I’ve never had instant grits, but MFBG, our local grits expert, says if that’s your only option, don’t buy them. They’re inedible.)

  12. marilyn Says:

    unless you cook these things yourself, you aren’t likely to distinguish one corn product from another. and if you cook the instant form, you still don’t have a clue. most folks know the whole grains only as an ingredient. cornmeal in cornbread, barley in soup, brown rice in a casserole. with salt and butter, perhaps honey or grated cheese, almost any of the whole grain products is pretty tasty all by its lonesome.

  13. Clarissa Vaughan Says:

    Just wanted to say that MFBG is my friend as well…and you can’t get be a GRITS (Girl Raised In the South) w/o knowing what grits are…great story and look forward to more…

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